That awkward time I witnessed the Christian subculture cannibalizing itself
This is probably the first post in a series of posts about specific moments that spurred me onto my journey out of the comforts of fundamentalism – milestones I remember for their awkwardness, if nothing else, things that stuck in my mind as my spiritual path began spiraling into greater freedom and grace.
When I was in my teens, I was an avid Breakaway reader. I, or rather my Mom, was one of probably very few overseas subscribers to this Christian magazine for boys that was made by America’s no. 1 purveyor of conservative values, Focus on the Family. [As a side note, this was probably also my only contact with actual, authentic, contemporary colloquial American English for a while. I remember reading phrases like pop that zit or kooky specs for the first time in this magazine.] One of my favorite columns was “High Voltage”, which answered readers’ questions about music albums and whether they were ‘safe’ for Christians to listen to or not (we’re talking mostly about secular music, of course, almost all of which was always deemed unsafe, of course). Reading through some of the answers now (which I, as presumably all other overprotected teenage readers trying to be decent and well-behaved God-fearing boys, took for high wisdom back then) makes me feel rather sad and… well, ashamed. The kind of subculture that columns like these fostered was one centered around decency, obedience, and keeping quiet, more than anything else. Any song lyrics even vaguely hinting at sex, drugs, ‘problematic’ social issues, or, frankly, anything one could ever feel passionate about (except for Jesus, of course), anything written from any perspective other than “I’m nothing and God is everything”, was enough to cast a dingy light on any album.
All this worked out fine for my fifteen-year-old self until one day (in the April 1996 issue) Michael from Missouri had the brilliant idea of taking this machinery of inquisition and applying it to the lyrics of what you might call a mainstream Christian band (lyrically, at least). I knew this band, listened to this band, loved this band, and still do. I consider Great Lengths a musical masterpiece to this day. So one day Michael from Missouri syllogized that if a song that has powerful, emotional, and thought-provoking lyrics (“You know for certain that you are a liar / You told me yourself you know the truth / But you won’t put true and true together / You know the sum would expose you …”) but does not explicitly point to God as the solution to all of life’s problems (enter Peter Rollins… but now I’m foreshadowing a bit too far) is deemed unsafe, and PFR have produced a song whose lyrics could be said to fit such a description, then this song must be unsafe even if it is a PFR song. Bravo, Michael. The response speaks volumes. “Good catch”, Michael. Good catch. Savor that.
Michael’s SyllogismA: Songs that don’t point to God as the solution are unsafe. B: PFR’s song “Wonder Why” doesn’t point to God as the solution. C: PFR’s song “Wonder Why” is unsafe.
A Christian band known for its rather intelligent and thoughtful (if Gospel-heavy) lyrics ‘dares’ to write a single song that asks more questions than it answers. PFR have ‘dared’ to write a non-preachy song. It’s not even a song about doubting (God forbid) or anything like that. It’s simply a song that portrays dishonesty and unfulfilled desires. But this is already too much for the family-safe Christian nitpicking industry at the time. A problem, a lament, a difficult situation must not be given room for, say, three minutes without the answer kicking in. The addiction to shallowness. (Lamentations, Job, Psalm 88, anyone? Anyone? … No? Whatever.)
It is here, in the article pictured above, that the whole witch hunt for not-holy-enough cultural products is turned upon its head. Turned upon itself, in a way. And even back then, I seem to half-remember, I must have felt something was wrong. As I said, I loved this band. And I loved this song. This was not fair. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something had happened. Something that should better not have happened. This article was wrong. I feel inclined to think, years later, that reading this question and its response somehow kicked something loose in me and set me spinning. This subcultural comfort zone I was a part of was not healthy. I know that today, but I wouldn’t have admitted it back then.
The writer of that column probably had a paycheck to think of. But he, Michael from Missouri, and my sad, US-zine-subscribing self all alone in Germany, were all part of a gigantic machine. A machine bent on keeping things safe, excluding as much honesty and humanity (not to mention humans) as possible, and fostering fear. And this little article demonstrated to me, even back then, what happens when the devastating weapon is turned on itself. Nothing remains. Thank you, Michael, for pointing that out. This question about PFR completely caught me off guard. Good catch.
Spoiler alert. A little while later I got into Saviour Machine. Saviour Machine have a song called “Killer” on their first album. It took me many years to read any sense into those lyrics. But when I finally did, I recognized so much. It’s funny how the most obvious things can be hidden in plain sight. But I’ll write more about that in future posts. Once a killer’s mind is on the loose, the killer is sure to attack.